The term networking is one of the most overused - and misunderstood - in today's professional environment. Too often it is job seekers or others who only network when they want something - like a job.
What many of these amateurs overlook is that professional information and favors are much like a bank account - you can't make withdrawals unless you've made deposits. Their intended audience, who are savvy influencers, professionals and executives, are leery of those who just try to leverage any possible connection (alumni, community groups, trade associations) with their hand out for some favor. Not for nothing do many of the job listings on LinkedIn require applicants to have several posted recommendations.
Effective networking is an on-going professional habit and skill. Constant engagement with others when you are not looking for something is how you build up a reservoir of credit for when you need to tap it later on. Hence, what you're doing is in essence "pro bono" networking - sort of "for the good of the (professional) public" - without an immediate need on your part for reciprocity.
Networking consists of both face-to-face interaction and also ongoing follow up. How can you tell if you're practicing credibility-building pro bono networking rather than the more typical "spare change" type of panhandling? Here's some tips (this assumes that you have met the person and are following up via email):
Pro bono checklist
Do you help others, or only expect them to help you? In other words, do you network when you don't need something? If not - you're just a panhandler in a professional environment. Effective networking has the orientation of helping others - so they will be inclined to help you when the time or opportunity arises.
Listen to yourself talk - As the saying goes, we all have two ears and one mouth - and our ratio of talking to listening should be the same. Additionally - listen to yourself talk - meaning, how do you come across? From time to time I have met people whose manner of expressing themselves is offensive - meaning that of the many ways to say something - they will use an expression that is irritating or otherwise offensive. We're not talking rocket science here - just a simple understanding of personal interaction skills. It is tough to do networking of you don't have that skill set.
How you listen - do you pay attention or look at your watch? Are you an active listener, or just going through the motions? This telegraphs itself across far more than most people realize - I can tell instantly if someone is listening or just going through the motions. No sense in networking if you don't know how to listen - or don't care enough to listen.
Learn to express yourself concisely - people have short attention spans - you need short transmission spans. Forget the long, involved story unless you killing time with friends who are interested. Instead - use a "news summary" like you see as the teasers on Internet news site (such as Drudge.) If the person is interested in more - they will let you know. If not - move on to the next topic, ask them about themselves, or move on to the next person.
Learn to ask intelligent questions - intelligent questions (which show an interest in additional information or follow the train of thought) show you are an active listener. An active listener will remember what they are told because they mentally project themselves into the conversation. However, in order to ask intelligent questions, you need to pay attention, be fairly well read and have some knowledge of the topic at hand. Whatever you do, don't make sophomoric remarks.
Follow up - this is the key to effective pro bono networking. For how long? For as long as you think it is useful. Use the rule of three pings mentioned below (no time limit on those) or however long you want.
Avoid the trivial or commonplace - Don't send (or talk about) trivial items, cartoons or common news items. Only send unique items that are of professional or specific personal interest that you know (based on your conversations with the person) that are of possible interest to them.
Follow the rule of three pings - the rule of three pings is that if you send something that you think might be of interest to someone, and they don't acknowledge or respond in any way (how long does it take to hit the reply button and type "thanks"?) drop them from the ping list. There are plenty of people out there who are quite happy to let you do lots for them and will do little or nothing in return. Unless you're a charity with your time learn to spot them early on and skip them. They may simply not be interested in your outreach. As they say in sales: "Do not seek the living among the dead."
Have CRM or some way to track who's who - It's impossible to track all of this without a contact management system. Be sure to log in where the initial meeting took place, any persons, events or activities in common, and any particular interests. Also list any personal interaction avoidances, such as individuals who hate political discussions, or just the nasty individuals. If you listen carefully in a conversation - you can pick up on preferences, biases and demeanor. Be sure to check your contact system to refresh your memory before you attend an event where you might meet these people again.
Make intelligent use of business cards - if you exchange cards, take a minute to jot down the place and date on the back of their card and also any special interests. You don't want to be going though cards later as you log them into your system and not remember where you met the person, or what you talked about. Or worse yet, follow up with someone and have them confused with someone else.
Join the professional networking sites for professional networking - not the social ones like Facebook. More and more professionals are using sites like LinkedIn as a way to stay connected or to deal with networking. Caveat - don't ask to connect directly (indirectly though your LinkedIn contacts is OK) to someone you don't know - or doesn't know you. Connect only after you have met them, and it doesn't hurt to ask first: "May I connect with you on LinkedIn?" Remember to be gracious if they decline. But if you mentioned beforehand some news tidbits or articles you would like to send them - chances are they won't decline.
Don't keep a payback score - but be mindful of respondees who don't engage or are not connected - Part of effective networking is to know who to network with - and not waste time with non-responsive people or those who are simply not connected. It's not that you're necessarily looking to keep score of payback points, but rather if the other person is interested, responding and similarly connected. Frankly, most people you meet won't be interested - or you won't be interested in them. Also, many would like you to believe they are connected, but they really aren't (in other words, they cannot provide introductions.) The key is quality, not quantity. If you just want ad hoc information, pick up the phone and cold-call. But for networking purposes, to paraphrase the Marines, all you're really looking for is "a few good contacts".
What if you're approached, and don't want to connect? Always be gracious - never condescending or dismissive. Not only is it the polite thing to do, there's a reason for this - the people you want to connect with may be observing your interaction. If you handle it skillfully, they will make note of it. If you are an SOB - they will note that as well. Remember, unguarded moments are the most telling - and accurate.
Don't waste time on the cliques - a suprising number of professional groups are introverted and have a "clique" of an inner circle or the chosen few. They only deal with each other and are not open to outsiders or the new members. Eventually, these organizations die or lose relevancy. An organization that wants to grow has to constantly add new blood. Avoid the dying groups and their self-absorbed members.
Exercise your network from time to time - every once and a while you want to make a small request of your contacts - perhaps just a name or if they knew a certain individual at a prior workplace. the reason for this is that you don't necessarily want to wait until you need something major to find out that they don't, can't or won't provide it. Small requests will tell you who is going to be worthwhile on a larger request - that is, most of the time.
Professional networking is a practiced skill - not the panhandling for a job as networking is often described. The key is to know the difference, and practice professional networking.